KABUL — The Afghan army, struggling to defeat a resilient Taliban, has begun enlisting men as old as 40 to replenish a force thinned by casualties, defections and attrition.
The decision to raise the age limit for recruits to 40 from 35 was quietly made last month in response to pressure from the U.S.-led coalition, said Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, chief spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.
“There was concern among our international friends, and also among Afghans, that we would not be able fulfill recruitment targets that we have for the new year,” Waziri said.
The strength of the Afghan National Army has been a long-standing concern for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, but the force’s shortcomings came into sharper focus last year.
Despite more than $35 billion in U.S. support over the past 15 years, the Afghan army struggled to repel a major Taliban offensive this past fall into Kunduz, a commercial hub in northern Afghanistan, taking days to regain control.
The Taliban also made gains in several northern and eastern provinces last year, heightening concerns that the Afghan army is stretched too thin to defend the country against the radical Islamist group’s persistent insurgency, as well as efforts by the Islamic State to gain a foothold.
In a report to Congress last week, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said that Afghan forces control only 70 percent of the country and that the Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001, when it was ousted from power in Kabul after five years of brutal rule.
Many analysts believe the Afghan army suffered a record number of casualties last year, although it has not released specific figures. Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, director of public affairs for the U.S.-led coalition, said Afghan forces suffered a 28 percent increase in casualties in 2015.
Lawhorn said Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has been urging the Afghan army to change how it recruits and deploys its soldiers.
While pushing army commanders to simplify the recruitment process, Campbell has also advised them to shift soldiers from checkpoints into more-mobile infantry units. The army also has to be large enough that it can more easily cycle soldiers between combat and leave time, Lawhorn said.
“What has happened the last couple years is some of these units have been in battle the entire time,” Lawhorn said. “So this winter, what we are trying to do is rebuild, reequip and re-man.”
Waziri said Afghan military commanders hope about 5 to 10 percent of recruits will come from the 35-to-40 age bracket.
The Afghan army has a targeted strength of 195,000 soldiers, but it has consistently failed to meet its recruitment goals. In his report to Congress, Sopko said the force currently claims about 170,000 soldiers. But that figure may be inflated, he cautioned.
Last month, an Associated Press investigation found that official Afghan army enlistment numbers probably include thousands of “ghost soldiers” who do not regularly report for duty or who have retired, defected to the Taliban or been killed.
With the move to accept recruits up to age 40, it appears as if the Afghan military will have one of the world’s least restrictive age requirements for military service.
Neighboring Pakistan, for example, generally does not accept infantry recruits older than 23, according to military officials in that country. India generally does not accept infantry recruits over 24.
But in recent years, the U.S. military has loosened some of its age requirements for enlistment.
Two years ago, the Air Force raised its maximum age from 27 to 39, according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper. The Army’s enlistment age is capped at 35 and the Marine Corps’ at 28, barring an official waiver.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.